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Healthy Living

Too Young to Worrry About Body Image

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 12/04/2009
Last Updated: 12/04/2009

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I don't have daughters - but instead, two sons - yet I can't help feeling disturbed by a recent that found half of all girls studied who were between the ages of 3 and 6 worried about being fat. And about one-third of these girls said they'd change a physical attribute such as their hair color or weight. Now, there's nothing wrong with dreaming, and admiring someone else's looks...but at such a young age?

I don't know about you, but when I was 3- or even 6 - I don't remember having weight on my mind. Granted, I was a skinny child who hated to eat, but I don't think most of my friends who might not have been as skinny were concerned with their body image, either. That came later, and by the time we were teenagers, exhibited itself as compulsive overeating, refusing food altogether or sticking your fingers down your throat - all things I incredulously witnessed before there were names like anorexia or bulimia tacked onto them. (I remember girls in my dorm storming into the bathroom stalls together following dinner each night. Naively, I thought their stomachs were just not used to the awful greasy dining hall food...) I worry about being fat now, because it has become a struggle to in the past few years. And I think that concern is appropriate, because after all, we all know that being overweight ups your risks for lots of problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, some cancers and even kidney stones.

And I'm concerned with my hair color, since the ugly shade of gray it would turn if I didn't help boost it with some vibrant red would be just, well, depressing.

But being 3 or 6 is a time when yes, a young girl can dream about being a princess or looking like her favorite teen idol, but not to the point of obsession and unhappiness. (There's plenty of time for that later - and a big market for it, to boot.)

I wonder had they run the same series of tests on us when we were that age if the researchers would have found we had the same degree of physical dissatisfaction with our bodies. After all, we had our beautiful and tiny cartoon princesses and our Barbie dolls with waists the size of a thumbnail to compare ourselves to. Or maybe we just were not paying all that much attention and were instead being too busy with being 3 or 6?

I'd love to hear your comments on this. Or maybe you can think about, or answer these questions: What is the first thing you are drawn to when you see yourself in a mirror or in the reflection of a window? Or what's the thing you'd change - or switch with someone else - if you had the chance?


I catch myself saying things about being "fat" in front of my nieces, and I realize the impact on them. There are a bunch of things I'd change, but I also work hard on liking myself just the way I am and helping them to do the same.

Sheryl, as a fellow redhead, I'd have to say that my hair is the first thing I notice when I look in the mirror. Fortunately, my mother didn't start coloring her hair to cover gray until recently, so that bodes well for me. I do remember being concerned about weight at age 9 or 10, but certainly not as young as 3 or 6!

Sheryl, as a fellow redhead, I'd have to say that my hair is the first thing I notice when I look in the mirror. Fortunately, my mother didn't start coloring her hair to cover gray until recently, so that bodes well for me. I do remember being concerned about weight at age 9 or 10, but certainly not as young as 3 or 6!

My daughter, age 5, does not have any issues with her weight (thankfully) and I don't think any of her friends do, either. So it makes me wonder about the sample that was polled. That said, we live in a society that is obsessed with looks, especially women's looks. And I've even caught myself saying things like "mommy needs to go on a diet" in front of my kid. I highly recommend the book You'd Be So Pretty If... by Sara Chadwick for anyone who is the parent of a girl.

I'm worried that I worded my comment poorly. When I said "she doesn't have issues with her weight," I meant "she doesn't think she's fat" and not "thank God she's skinny."

This news is really frightening. I wrote an article ten years ago on this subject, but then filmmaker Margaret Lazarus was addressing the problem as it related to twelve-year-olds. Not sure if this link will work but the article is here:
Or, Google my name and Margaret's to find it.

I think I had concerns about my weight as soon as I started school. I knew I was heavier than the other kids. It's plagued me my whole life.

I was scary skinny growing up. Most of high school I was in sports which required a lot of "physicals" to make sure we were healthy enough for the sport. Each time I would get the same questions, "do YOU think you're fat? what do you see when you look in the mirror?" I'd roll my eyes and assure them I liked food, I was just skinny. I had the opposite harrassment of overweight people. I wasn't a big eater and I was thin. For some reason it's ok to publicly humiliate the skinny people as just "good ribbing" at the dinner table. My daughter, just 4, makes me smile because she's always pointing at women/girls and saying how beautiful they are. She also really likes it when I tell her, "You're smart." I get a bigger grin from that then if I tell her she looks pretty.

Claudine, I know what you mean about comments to skinny people. I used to get those, too. (Those days are over, though :) People were suspect of my "habits" thinking I was anorexic when truly, I was just skinny. It led to self-consciousness on my part, and isn't that a shame? I can only imagine the self-consciousness, then, of anyone else who deviates slightly above the "norm" of what society deems acceptable weight.

Both my husband and I have had anorexia in our families and when we had our daughter, from the onset the word 'diet' was banned from our vocabulary. We had phases when we tried to eat healthier, and of course the odd comment on somebody being fat slipped out, but we always made sure that it was linked to it being unhealthy and not body image.
Our daughter is now nearly 14yrs old, healthy, not skinny and aware of eating healthy and the importance of exercise. But, alas, all our good intentions are being shattered daily now by her peers. She has come home concerned on several occasions about friends who throw out their lunch and have fainting spells because they think they are too fat and are starving themselves.
If it's not the parents, then it's the peers - I think we were very lucky when we were young because either we were too naive to notice other people's bodies or we did not have the media pressure and awareness our kids have.
I say one thing - you are lucky to have boys in this respect!

i agree that girls--i have 3 daughters--are becoming negatively aware of their bodies WAY too young. it makes me so sad that our culture is so focused on looks. i'm trying to teach my children to be beautiful on the inside. they're little-- i can only imagine it will get harder and harder

My goodness, Ulrike. That's a lot for your daughter to be exposed to - but I'd guess it's the way it is for all teenage (and younger!) girls. So much emphasis on thinness leads some girls to really do all kinds of things to achieve it. How sad. While boys are definitely aware of their bodies ("mom, I'm jacked, look...") it's not nearly to the same degree as these poor girls. I do think you're right in saying that when we were younger, there was much less emphasis by the media on being skinny - although these things still did exist (but there were no "official" names attached to them...)

Yes, Jennifer, I do think it will get harder when they're older. But there's definitely a in forming their basic understanding of food, healthy eating and body image as early as possible so that they hopefully stay grounded in the craziness.

I'm with Alisa on this one. As the parent of three girls, I'm very aware the messages about body image are starting younger and younger, but I'm a bit suspicious of such a large percentage of 3 to 6 y-os thinking they're fat. What sort of questions did the researchers use? Did the preschoolers understand what they were being asked? And I do try to never comment on my weight in front of my girls (even after indulging a bit too much at Thanksgiving!). Instead, I try to set a good example for them and keep them involved in activities so they feel strong and healthy.

That said, some kids are just more aware of their bodies than others. My middle child just loves doing yoga, shuns chocolate and eats reasonable portions. That's just her nature.

A few months ago my friend's 11 year old son asked me how he can get "those hollow spaces on top of his collarbones" because he thought they looked so cool. That really freaked me out - we really don't think of boys having some of these same issues, but I guess they can! I told my friend right away so that she could keep an eye on him...

Wow, this is alarming. While I also question what methods were used to collect this sample, I find myself much more keenly interested in these issues because I just had my second daughter (I also have two older sons). I remember well how obsessed many teenage girls were with their weight when I was growing up. I'll do all I can do try to create a healthy atmosphere at home in this regard.

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